Millbrook High School probably won’t ever put up a statue of any of its girls’ basketball players.
The players likely won’t ever have a nearby street named in their honor or a building bearing their name.
The girls this year were fortunate, talented and driven enough to win a state championship, joining a class that only a select few are able to enter.
But no matter how much glory they accumulated during their high school basketball careers, that’s precisely where it ends: in high school.
Some players – Millbrook girls, boys and far beyond – will be fortunate, talented and driven enough to play on. Others won’t.
An even more rare group of athletes has a chance at something incredibly special: a state title. Seniors who win one can end their high school careers on top.
I’ve covered prep basketball in North Carolina for three years, and I’ve been lucky enough to see a state championship victory at the end of each season.
I’ve seen title-winning seniors move on to standup basketball careers at community colleges, small colleges and even one of the best Division I basketball colleges in the nation. But I’ve also seen some forced to shut the door entirely on that chapter of their lives.
After reaching the top of the high school basketball threshold, some victors have to move on.
Bigger than basketball
That’s why it’s much bigger than just winning states, regardless of what’s next for high school champions. It’s about completing a journey and an everlasting bond with your teammates.
Sure, you won’t come back to a building named after you – well, Duke freshman Brandon Ingram just might judging by how much they loved him in Kinston – but you’ll carry forever with you the memories produced by a career-ending title.
“To go out on top means a lot. It kind of makes you feel like high school wasn’t a waste, like your high school basketball career wasn’t a waste,” said Ryan Flowers, a Millbrook graduate who won a basketball championship her senior year. She was on the back-to-back title teams in 2012 and 2013.
“It makes you feel good about yourself, like you’ve worked hard enough to do what everybody else couldn’t do,” Flowers said. “That feeling is better than everything – good enough to be No. 1 out of the whole state.”
In the days leading up to the Millbrook girls’ most recent title – a 46-45 clutch victory over previously unbeaten Northwest Guilford on March 12 – it was clear they were cherishing some of their final moments together.
The team had five seniors. Seniors Danielle Audain and Jaleesa Dillard were freshmen on the 2013 championship team.
But this time was different since they were more integral parts of the team. Dillard, a clear leader, equated winning a state championship as a senior to high school graduation.
“You know when you’re a freshman in high school and you’re looking at all the seniors and you can’t wait for that moment to walk across the stage? It’s like that,” she said. “It’s like when you finally get your diploma in your hand. You’re done, you succeeded, you got what you wanted and you’re headed to the next thing. I get so happy thinking about it.
“Think of the best thing that’s ever happened in your life, and this would be it – to play in the high school championship.”
Flowers, who joined a Millbrook practice in the days leading up to the big game, offered several pieces of advice: Drink lots of water, drown out the crowd, play tougher defense, talk to each other on the floor and, if nothing else, play for the seniors.
“It’s very emotional, that it’s your last time, not knowing if you’re going to play basketball again,” Flowers said. “It’s very emotional, so no matter what play for the seniors.”
Tributes that matter
Millbrook junior guard Kai Crutchfield must have heeded Flowers’ words, as Cructhfield was the one to bank in the game-winning shot and send the seniors out with a victory.
The Millbrook community honored the girls in its own way, something they’d probably appreciate now more than a 17-foot bronze monument.
Cars full of supporters honked at the Wildcats’ bus on the ride back from Chapel Hill. Their names and numbers were painted on the school’s front door the following Monday. Etches of “2016 CHAMPIONS” adorned several campus windows.
The girls will have the hardware to remember the moment, as Cap-8 regular-season championship, Cap-8 tournament championship, Eastern regional championship and N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A championship plaques stand on display in the main office.
They’ll have the medals and awards. They’ll have the countless Vine loops and hundreds of Twitter retweets of the game-winning shot to help them relive the moment.
But it’s what we can’t see that matters most to the players who left high school on top.
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan